Within the broad frame of the history of science and technology, my research pays particular attention to data recording and storage, gender, the body, disability, and the interactions between technical practice and artistic endeavor.
My dissertation, "The Choreography of Everyday Life," explored how a tool developed to record dance on paper in Weimar Germany found new life in the corporate boardrooms, robotics laboratories, and psychiatric hospitals of the mid-century United States and United Kingdom. Other projects have investigated the material history of the ballet pointe shoe, the sexual rehabilitation of paraplegic WWII veterans, and the scientific study of primate art-making behavior.
Detailed descriptions of major projects can be found below.
Measured Movements: The Human Body and the Choreography of Modern Life
My current book manuscript, Measured Movements: The Human Body and the Choreography of Modern Life, illuminates how a technology designed to record movement became a tool for managing social, cultural, and political life in the United States and United Kingdom after World War II. Developed by the German choreographer (and future Nazi Minister of Dance) Rudolf Laban in the 1920s, “Labanotation” employed a complicated “scientific” symbology to capture bodily movement on paper. Each chapter of the book explores a new episode in Labanotation’s movement from Nazi Germany to the factories, hospitals, and corporate boardrooms of Britain and the United States. There, it was used to provide spiritual salve for exhausted assembly line workers, to identify and treat war veterans and Holocaust survivors, to screen white-collar job applicants, and by folklorist Alan Lomax to assuage Americans’ unease about a multicultural world. Labanotation’s surprising appeal, I argue, derived from the twin promises it made to its users. First, that movement could provide individuals with a source of emotional solace, personal expression, and spiritual redemption. And, second, that this expressive potential would never go too far: movement would be continually monitored, broken down into its constituent parts, and put in the service of modern states, institutions, and bureaucracies. In creating a notation system ostensibly capable of turning any movement into easily analyzable data, Laban’s work not only served to preserve a fading past, but seemed to open up new possibilities for the literal choreographing of modern life.
“Paper Dancers: Captured Movement, Frozen Time, and the Science of Art in Twentieth Century
America,” in Information and Culture 52 (January 2017).
Laemmli, Whitney. “A Case in Pointe: Romance and Regimentation at the New York City Ballet,” in Technology and Culture 56 (January 2015).
Winner of the 2018 Abbot Payson Usher Prize from the Society for the History of Technology.
Linker, Beth and Whitney Laemmli. “Half a Man: The Symbolism and Science of Paraplegic Impotence in World War II America,” in Osiris 30, “Scientific Masculinities,” ed. Robert A. Nye and Erika Lorraine Milam (October 2015).
Review of The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida, Introduction and Translation by David Mitchell, Somatosphere
Laemmli, Whitney. "Alan Lomax and the Temple of Movement." Limn 6: The Total Archive.
Laemmli, Whitney. “The Living Record: Alan Lomax and the World Archive of Movement (1965-1985),” in History of the Human Sciences, Special Issue on “The Total Archive.” Forthcoming.